Nov. 10, 2000 -- Four days after the presidential elections, much remains uncertain. But one possibility is clear: The next president may not have earned the most votes of the American people.
That prospect has many questioning the fairness of the Electoral College. In fact, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, now New York’s senator-elect, announced today that to “respect the will of the people” we should “do away with the Electoral College and move to the popular election of our president.”
But some, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Alan Natapoff, believe such a move would be highly unscientific.
“Getting rid of this system would be like cutting out an organ of the human body without knowing what it does,” says Natapoff, who has been crunching numbers since 1960 to demonstrate how the Electoral College empowers voters.
Old System, Many Challenges
The Electoral College, set up by the Founding Fathers, grants each state a number of electoral votes, based on the number of people each state elects to the House of Representatives. In all but two states, Maine and Nebraska, the majority vote of the state decides which candidate should get all its electoral votes. Whichever candidate wins the majority of the nation’s 538 electoral votes wins the election — regardless of who wins the popular vote count.
Mrs. Clinton is hardly the first to call for abandoning the system. The League of Women Voters, the American Bar Association and a number of senators have been pushing to get rid of the college for many years. In fact, over the past 200 years, more than 700 proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform or eliminate the Electoral College.
So far, the Electoral College has survived all of those challenges, although some believe this election could be the final straw.
“There’s always a wave of reform sentiment following a contested election,” says Neal Pierce, co-author of The People’s President, a book about the Electoral College. “I think the minimal result of this is to demand a fair game in the future and you cannot have a fair game with this system.”
The argument for a popular vote is simple — one person, one vote — majority wins. The merits of the Electoral College are less obvious. So Natapoff has devised a theorem to explain its benefits. His theorem can be represented by numbers, but it can also be explained by using as an analogy another very American institution — baseball.
Requiring Broad Appeal
To win the World Series, he explains, it’s not enough for a team to simply score the most runs of the series. Instead, a team must win the best of seven games. That ensures the champion team must be able to win some of the close contests using all possible skills, including stealing, pitching and fielding as well as hitting.
Likewise, Natapoff says, a candidate should not win an election simply by winning the most votes. Instead, the Electoral College ensures the candidate has broad appeal across the entire nation and not only with large pockets of voters. It also ensures that during campaigning, the candidate woos all the people and all the issues — not just the largest blocs.
“If a candidate wins just by winning more votes, we haven’t forced him to do much,” says Natapoff. “In the electoral system, they have to represent the country and the issues in every state.”
On a rare event, as this election may be, a candidate may end up winning an election and not winning the most votes. But, Natapoff argues, that flaw is worth ensuring that every voter is heard in the long run.
Natapoff used more math to determine how an electoral system could empower each vote.By funneling each vote through districts, he calculates, one vote is more likely to determine the outcome of an election than if it’s cast in a huge national pool.
Others add that a popular vote system could be more flawed than many think.
Curtis Gans, the director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, believes that presidential candidates would spend nearly their entire budgets on campaign ads in mass media if they simply had to win a nationwide majority of votes. Rather than traveling to different parts of the country and developing grass-roots support, it would make more sense in a popular vote, Gans argues, for candidates to simply flood the airwaves with ads.
“We know that in statewide gubernatorial and senatorial races, where elections are won by majority, the candidates spend most of their budget on television advertising,” says Gans.
But arguments against the Electoral College can also become more complex.
Akhil Amar, a government professor at Yale University, argues the Electoral College was set up 200 years ago to ensure that Southerners would be fully represented even if they did not allow black people in their regions to vote. That cause, he points out, is obviously obsolete.
Another reason for its establishment, he says, was that common people far from the major villages or towns might not have enough information to make a wise decision — and so would need representatives to vote for them. Communications technology, Amar argues, has remedied that problem.
Finally, some claim the Electoral College does not force candidates to pay attention to the entire country and all the issues, but instead forces them to focus on states where the votes are expected to be close. John Feerick, dean of the Fordham Law School in New York City, argues that a popular vote system would allow people of common interests to pool their influence beyond state borders.
“What we have right now is a mess,” says Feerick. “We deserve better as a free people and as a beacon of democracy in the world to have a system to elect a president that doesn’t send out conflicting results and create confusion.”
The last time legislation was introduced to eliminate the Electoral College was three years ago. If Sen.-elect Clinton introduces legislation as she suggested she would, Natapoff says, once again, he’ll pull out his calculator to make his point.
“The Democrats or Republicans might not like the results,” says Natapoff. “But as a voter, the Electoral College is in our best interest.”